Buffalo Tiger, Miccosukee Leader, Dies at Age 94

Buffalo Tiger's book
Buffalo Tiger's book

Several members of the Miccosukee Tribe are reporting that former chairman Buffalo Tiger has died. He was 94. He died at his home in Kendall due to natural causes, according to his family.

Tiger was one of the founders of the Miccosukee Tribe -- whose members organized separately from the Seminole Tribe and were recognized by the U.S. government as a sovereign nation in 1962. Tiger served as chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe from 1962 to 1985.

Native American populations living in the area now known as South Florida were decimated after Andrew Jackson's troops plowed through the region during three Seminole Wars in the 1800s. Some survivors were driven out to what is now Oklahoma in mass deportations. Only when a mere 100 to 200 remained, having hidden in the swamp, did the white man stop persecuting them.

In the early 1900s, natives were forced to adapt from hunters and gatherers to participants in the U.S. economic system, largely because the ecosystem changed. The Army Corps of Engineers dredged the swamp, built an elaborate system of canals, and constructed Tamiami Trail on top of a levee, interfering with the water flow from north to south. Natives began to make money by selling crafts to tourists and running alligator shows.

Buffalo Tiger was born on March 6, 1920 -- eight years before the Trail was completed -- the fourth of ten children. In his 2008 autobiography, Buffalo Tiger: A Life in the Everglades, he said his "baby name" was Mostaki. Tiger was a member of the Bird clan, which he said in his autobiography is historically known for its peacemaking.

Editors of his autobiography explain in the foreword to his book that Tiger's achievements include having spoken "for the Miccosukees during the Seminoles' struggle against termination." He also "guided their separation from the Seminoles, he presided over their first constitutional government, and he helped develop the contracting system that became a model for the U.S. policy of Indian self-determination."

Tiger described growing up in the Everglades when "there were all kinds of fish; all kids of birds; all kinds of snakes; all kinds of game. There were just too many sometimes."

He says that his people were known in their language as "Eelaponke" and that their ancestors hailed from the Tallahassee area, while the Seminole people or "Cheeshaponke" hailed from Alabama and Georgia, though the ethnic groups mixed somewhat over the years in South Florida.

Tiger wrote that Eelaponke believed in the Breathmaker, who created all living things and the land. "We must not destroy or sell it," he wrote. Money "cannot buy the land. We are not supposed to buy or sell even a cup of muck."

But in the 1950s, a postwar Republican-controlled Congress wanted to reduce debt and sought to close the books on federal obligations to tribes, according to Harry Kersey, co-author of Tiger's autobiography. It wanted to pay off obligations it had incurred in various treaties and let tribes run their own affairs, financially independent of the U.S. government.


In response, some of the native people moved to formally organize as a tribe that would come to be known as the Seminole Tribe. This group wanted to accept money for lands that had been seized from them in the 1800s. However, those who would become Miccosukee had a difference of opinion and did not want to cede claims to land. This group organized separately as the Miccosukee Tribe. After feeling ignored by U.S. government officials, its leader went to Cuba to meet with then-public enemy number-one Fidel Castro, scaring U.S. officials who feared a Cold War partnership between Russia-friendly Cuba.

As Buffalo Tiger put it in a 1987 Miami Herald interview:

"...The government wanted to pay us money to shut up. We wanted land set aside for us and to be left alone. No one in Washington would listen to us. So when [Fidel] Castro took over [in 1959], I went over there and smoked some cigars with him and Che Guevara and I asked them: 'Do you recognize the Miccosukee Tribe?' Castro said he did. He said that if the United States would not give us a place to live, we were welcome to go over there and he would make room for us. When we got back, there were all kinds of phone calls from Washington.The government started dealing with us seriously then.''

The tribe was recognized by the U.S. government in 1962 and obtained sovereign, dependent nation status. (Some natives opted not to join either tribe.) It went on to be independent and rather prosperous. As the tribe explains on ts website:

"On May 4, 1971, officers of the Miccosukee Corporation, acting for the Miccosukee Tribe, signed a contract with the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], authorizing the Corporation to operate all programs and services provided for the Miccosukee Community and formerly administered by the BIA. The Tribe's intent in negotiating this matter was clear; the people wished to decide their own fate and gradually develop total independence."

The tribe opened two casinos, including one on Krome Avenue that opened in 1990, which now provide income for the 600-plus tribe members. The Seminole Tribe, by contrast, has more than 3,000 members in South Florida and operates the Hard Rock chain of resorts and casinos.

Buffalo Tiger was voted out as chairman in 1985. He founded an airboat tour company, Buffalo Tiger's Airboat Tours, now run by family members.

On its Facebook page, Buffalo Tiger Airboat Tours wrote "to let everyone know our founder a great man in his own right passed away not too long ago. He touched many lives."

A statement posted to Facebook by son Lee Tiger says:

Buffalo Tiger is survived by his wife Yolima Tiger, son Lee Tiger, son William Buffalo Tiger Jr, daughter Sally Tiger, son David Tiger, daughters Jennifer and Jessica, and 21 grandchildren.

Buffalo Tiger's family will hold services from 10 a.m. to 12(?) Thursday, January 8, at Woodlawn Park Cemetery South, 11655 SW 117th Ave, Miami, FL 33186 [Phone: (305) 238-3672].

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